A man helped a lost toddler find her parents, police say. He was smeared online as a predator
A man trying to help a lost toddler find her parents was misidentified as a kidnapper on social media over the weekend, according to police in Lakeland, Florida, prompting him to leave town in fear for his safety and the safety of his family.
The man was also punched by the child's father who told local media that he "thought he was trying to take my daughter" and "wanted to kill him."
The whole episode prompted the Lakeland Police Department to warn citizens to "be careful about what you post on social media so as not to victimize an innocent person . . . Before posting information on matters such as this, we encourage people to identify the source and the validity of such claims before sharing them."
Lakeland police, in a Facebook post, said the falsely accused man was visiting friends at a softball game when he noticed at a 2-year old had gotten separated from her parents. She was "wandering by herself," police said, and the man "believed that she was lost.
"The citizen attempted to ask the girl where her parents were and walked with her in hopes she could point them out," the statement said, a fact verified by at least one independent witness.
At that point, "bystanders" told the parents that the man was "attempting to kidnap the child," said police.
As the two were nearing the playground, three men approached them from behind, Patch reported. One man grabbed the girl and the other man, who is the child's father punched the man five or six times.
"I thought he was trying to take my daughter," the girl's father told News Channel 8.
"I saw this man with my daughter in his hands walking toward the parking lot. What would you do?" the father asked. "I wanted to kill him."
The father told The Washington Post that it all happened very quickly, "within 45-seconds."
The investigating officer noted the victim's face had several cuts and was swollen.
Police concluded that the man was only trying to help. "We had an independent eyewitness that saw him walking around, asking, 'Is this your parents? Is that your father?'" Sgt. Gary Gross with the Lakeland Police Department told Fox 13 News.
According to police the young girl tried to pull away but the man was concerned for her safety and picked her up and continued walking toward the playground, "hoping that he would be able to locate the child's father."
The father and his friends were not satisfied with the man's explanation or that of the police. "So, I guess in Lakeland, you can kidnap a child and get away with it," the father said to police, local media reported.
According to WFLA, other media outlets and police, family members and friends went on social media and shared the man's photo, his Facebook page and his place of business, "calling him a child predator," WFLA said.
Police, however, called him a "good Samaritan" in their statement. "It is understandable how parents can possibly be upset in a situation involving a lost child," the statement said. "However, this incident truly involved a good Samaritan trying to assist a lost child finding" her parents.
"Accounts of this incident have circulated on social media with false information and speculation. Posting false information on Facebook could cause a defamation of character claim and those posting false information could be held libel."
The police statement noted that only one person called authorities to "get the correct information."
One Facebook user responded: "I was one of those who shared post thinking it was helpful, now I feel awful that it clearly was not! Definitely teaches me to double check sources before spreading!"
"Now this man's face is all over the internet," said another commenter on the police department's Facebook page. " . . . The assumptions that were made can ruin this guys life. Unbelievable."
The good Samaritan told several local outlets that he has now left town with his family for their safety. He says he will not press charges against the father.
The father made no apologies for his actions but told The Post, "All that matters is that my daughter is home safely."
The police statement did not provide names. In order to protect the child and the falsely accused man, The Post is not using names in this story.
This article was written by Amber Ferguson of The Washington Post.